He spent his childhood emulating his father’s 14-year professional career playing water polo.
Watching his father capture one of Brazil’s most prestigious water polo titles, the Campeonato Paulista, inspired Long Beach State international student-athlete Rafael Real Vergara to create a legacy of his own.
After struggling to stay afloat in school in Brazil, Vergara saw coming to the United States as an opportunity to intertwine sports and education in a system that has paved the way for international-athletes in the past.
“My goal here is first school, then water polo, but I’ve always tried to do both well,” Vergara said. “I want to win the NCAA title. The Beach has never won and I want to change that.”
Vergara’s father never forced him to play sports, but wanted to make sure he was always active. At 7 years old, Vergara started playing water polo and by 9, the sport had “consumed his life.”
“I am very happy because he is still doing something he believes in,” Vergara’s father Leo said. “With sports you can be happy, healthy and make friends. The American system of education and sports, I believe, is the best development of the young people.”
Coming to the Beach from Sao Paulo, Brazil, the freshman attacker is beginning to make a name for himself, scoring 35 goals in 14 games played this season.
“His work ethic is unreal and this translates to motivating other people on our team to have the same work ethic,” junior goalie Marwan Darwish said. “The high level of water polo Rafa has participated in has improved the way we operate as a team. He is constantly giving other players advice and leading by example.”
Having grown up training up to 16 hours a day in Brazil, Vergara’s work ethic has always been his driving force.
“They knew that I was coming and who I was,” Vergara said. “I always try to keep in mind that they were here before I was.”
In 2015, Vergara visited Los Angeles for the first time while playing for the Long Beach Sharks, a U.S. junior national team. During practice on campus, Vergara met Long Beach State head coach Gavin Arroyo, who four years later would be the determining factor to play for the Beach.
Last year Vergara was offered a roster spot with the Sant Andreu professional Water Polo Club in Barcelona, Spain. After talking with family and friends, Vergara decided the best way to keep playing and get an education was to come to the U.S.
“I’ve been doing stuff with the U.S. team for the past five years and we crossed over in a couple of tournaments and obviously his skillset is pretty amazing so we kind of went off of that,” Arroyo said. “He’s proven himself internationally and his job is to come in and raise the level of the other guys that we have, even as a freshman.”
Upon arriving at the Beach a week late due to issues with his visa, Vergara began the year having trouble adjusting to his new schedule and school.
“I had transcripts from Brazil and Spain and was feeling like ‘What am I going to do?’” Vergara said. “Anything I needed from coach Arroyo he would help me out. He would call around for me and handle these issues. It basically was because he’s always helping and I trusted him to do me good that I decided on coming to Long Beach.”
Navigating Beachboard and keeping track of assignments first proved tough for Vergara in a new language, but with the help of teammates was able to find a routine to be more successful in his academics.
“He did not know where he was going to live,” Darwish said. “Being an international student like him, I know how the transition period can be tough… I was able to help him find a place and get ready for school and water polo.”
Vergara has been playing international club water polo for Spain and Brazil since he was 15 years old. In highschool Vergara participated in the UANA Pan American Junior Water Polo Championship for Brazil, where he was awarded the most valuable player.
“[Vergara] just knows the game so well, he bucks the trend of what an alpha male’s personality is,” Arroyo said.
Vergara was also part of the Brazilian National Team that beat the U.S. National Senior Team for the first time in 45 years, just the fourth time in Brazilian history.
Outside of the pool, Vergara enjoys his time by breaking down game film, FaceTiming his girlfriend and socializing with friends.
“I think I have some steps to do in my life, and this one of those steps,” he said. “I would rather be living in Brazil, but I know it’s a huge opportunity for me here.”
Mark Lindahl, sports editor, contributed to the reporting of this article.